Private care 'is often no faster than the NHS'

MANY private hospital patients are treated no more quickly than people who use the National Health Service, according to Which? magazine.

A survey of more than 3,000 Which? members challenges the conventional belief that paying always guarantees faster medical treatment. It shows how, although some NHS patients experienced long waits for non-emergency operations, nearly three-quarters were admitted for in-patient treatment within three months of referral.

Whereas two-thirds of private patients were admitted within one month of their out-patient consultation, one in three NHS patients were dealt with that quickly. Half of all NHS patients wait less than five weeks after their out-patient appointment before they are admitted.

Almost nine out of ten private patients had an out-patient appointment in less than a month, compared with just under half of the NHS patients.

The survey's findings, which back up national statistics, are significant given that nearly half of those who take out private medical insurance said they pay to avoid waiting for treatment.

The study stresses that there are great variations between NHS hospitals in waiting times for the same operation. Checking around may be as helpful a way to speed treatment as opting to go private. NHS waiting lists are longer for straightforward non-emergency surgery such as hip replacements, varicose vein removals, hernias and piles.

The National Waiting List Helpline is 081-983 1133.

Which? accused supermarkets of poor food hygiene, after a survey claimed that a third of ham bought from their delicatessen counters was contaminated with food bugs. But high street butchers and delicatessens had a far worse hygiene record.

The survey found no traces of salmonella - one of the commonest causes of food poisoning - but 14 of the 232 ham samples analysed had 'very low' levels of listeria, a serious food bug, and eight of them were bought by inspectors at supermarkets.

Almost half the loose samples had bugs, compared with 6 per cent of pre-packed ham. Ten of the 134 loose samples were unacceptable and had the highest food poisoning risk. Six came from supermarkets.

Several supermarkets contested the report. A spokesman for Safeway said: 'We do not accept the findings. We are seeking verification over the way these hams were sampled. We are carrying out our own tests.'